The Biographer's Craft

The Biographer's Craft

Writers discuss the art of capturing lives with words

By Frank Bures | Photos by Dave Curd

"You have to have that sense of wanting to know more to pursue the questions and to dig around.
You have to be sort of voyeuristic, I guess. You have to want to dig around in somebody else's life."
Elizabeth Leonard (history)
Leonard set out to not only use Holt—a passionate abolitionist who came from a family that once owned slaves and bête noire of President Andrew Johnson—as a window into the time, but to try to portray him thoughtfully and fairly.

"I'm always interested in people who I feel a kind of connection with," said Leonard. "You have to have that sense of wanting to know more to pursue the question and to dig around. You have to be sort of voyeuristic, I guess. You have to want to dig around in somebody else's life."

That attraction, however, makes her more aware of the need for neutrality. "The flip side of this thing that draws you to them," she said, "is this need to remain somehow detached and try to understand them for who they are in their context. I tend to work on people who are at least a hundred and fifty years before my time. That allows you some distance, but you have to remember that they lived in a different time."

Jonathan Weiss, NEH/Class of 1940 Distinguished Professor of Humanities and a biographer, has found that writing about people who are alive (or whose relatives are alive) has its own challenges. Last year Weiss published the first biography of French writer Irène Némirovsky.

"She was a pretty much unknown author when I started working on this," Weiss said. "What happened was a friend gave me one of her novels, and I read it and was really interested in the novel—it was pretty interesting. Then I read a book by one of her daughters who had survived the war, about her mother. So I called the daughter and she and I talked, and I became close to her. And she said, 'You really ought to write a biography of her.'"

At about the time he finished the book, one of Némirovsky's unfinished manuscripts won the 2004 Prix Renaudot, making her a posthumous literary star. And her daughter was unhappy with Weiss's conclusions about her now-famous mother. "When you're trying to figure out why a person is the way they are," Weiss said, "you find, or I found, some things that were very depressing. For example, she was very close to the right wing at a time when that was probably not the thing to do."

That was one of several facts the daughter didn't want included.

"It's one thing to do a biography of someone who's dead and with no relatives around," Weiss said. "But if you're doing a biography of someone who died recently, and whose relatives are still there and who have a point of view, it's a little tougher. You're dealing with them all the time. They're helping you and giving you all the information they can. But what if your conclusions are not pleasing to them? That's what I had to deal with. I didn't expect that when I started. I suspected it would be real easy. But that's the way it is. As a writer and a historian myself, I have to call it the way I see it."

Aram Goudsouzian '94 found something similar when he wrote Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon, first as his dissertation, then as a book that looks at the actor's career and life in light of the civil rights struggles that raged while Poitier graced the screen.

Goudsouzian, a history professor at the University of Memphis now working on a biography of Boston Celtics basketball star Bill Russell, says you can tell a lot about cultural attitudes toward race by looking at Poitier's career in the context of larger events in the 1950s and '60s. "Hollywood sort of creates this character of Poitier as this perfect, middle-class, kind-to-whites, sexually restrained, deferential, polished, intelligent, accomplished character," Goudsouzian said. "And that was sort of the only way they could deal with black people in [that] generation."
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